Station: [100] Przewalski’s Horses

F: The name is a real tongue twister. Their disposition? Wild, shy and untamed! We’re talking about the Przewalski’s horses. Here are some of them in the enclosure at Münster’s All Weather Zoo. For a long time, Przewalski's were thought to be the last surviving wild horses on Earth. So was that a mistake? 

M: According to the latest genetic studies, it was, yes! They show that the animals are descended from Botai horses. Those were first domesticated in Kazakhstan, more than 5,000 years ago. 

F: But it’s more complicated than that. Up to now, Botai horses were believed to be the ancestors of all current horse breeds. But once again, the genetic analyses present a different picture. There’s no close relationship at all between the domestic horse and the Botai horse. So much for the appealing genealogy. 

M: That leaves us with two questions. What is the ancestry of our present-day domestic horses? And what about the Przewalski’s horses? Are they after all "just" feral domestic horses? 

F: Even if they aren’t true wild horses, their genetic heritage still includes as substantial wild component. If you look at the animals, you’ll discover several ways in which they differ from our domestic horses. 

M: The body is stocky, the neck strong, the legs relatively short. Also distinctive is the mealy mouth – that is, the white muzzle. And have you noticed anything unusual about the mane? It's not long and flowing, but short and stubby – what’s known as a standing mane. And the fetlocks display a striped pattern. All of these are typical "wild horse" characteristics. And just like the zebra, Przewalski’s are difficult to ride! 

F: Incidentally, the animals owe their unusual name to a Russian explorer called Nicolai Mikhailovich Przewalski. He travelled across Asia and first discovered these shy horses in 1879. 

M: In the wild, Przewalski’s are found on the Chinese and Mongolian steppes. However, they had virtually died out. The last individuals were sighted in 1968. With an elaborate breeding program, it has been possible to preserve the species – and initial reintroduction programmes have been promising. 

F: Rather less appealing is the tale of the early 20th century trapping expeditions. The Hamburg animal trader Carl Hagenbeck travelled to Asia at the time to procure wild horses for zoos. Many died in transit, or later in captivity. Only about a dozen survived. The small herd here in Münster descended from those survivors. Although the trapping expeditions were brutal, they did ensure the survival of the Przewalski's horses – in the wild as well as at the zoo.

M: If all that’s made you curious, do come and see us at the Westphalian Horse Museum here at the Allwetterzoo – Münster’s All-Weather Zoo. We look forward to your visit! 



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